01 Oct 2007

The road from Kununurra to Derby

The road from Kununurra to Derby

Rolling Stone tour dirary, By Paul Kelly



In a small bush cemetery just off the Great Northern Highway in the East Kimberley lie two giants of Australian art – Queenie McKenzie and Rover Thomas – who died several months apart in 1998. Queenie’s grave is a simple white wooden cross on which her name is handwritten. Rover’s, 15 yards away, is more substantial, with a headstone and a plaque piled with plastic flowers. 

In the distance is a low, red mountain range. Queenie and Rover, who both started painting late in their lives, made extraordinary pictures just up the road at the community of Warmun, also known as Turkey Creek. Their paintings now fetch prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and Warmun, a tiny dot on the map on a lonely outback highway, is now the centre of a thriving art movement and home to a number of artists whose work is eagerly sought by collectors all over the world

I am standing there on the dusty pink-red ground with my manager, Bill Cullen. We are on our way to meet the rest of the band in Derby for the first show of a seven week national tour.

I first became aware of Queenie and Rover in the mid nineties. I already had some knowledge of the modern Aboriginal art movement that begun in Papunya west of Alice Springs in the seventies and soon flowered all over the country. When I first saw Rover Thomas’s paintings I was struck by their mystery and severity. There was nothing decorative, ornate or fussy about them. He was unafraid of black. The colours were earthy, the paintings uncompromising, monumental and brooding. 

Not long afterwards I saw some of Queenie’s pictures. You could tell they were from the same area but Queenies’, although employing a similar minimalist style of broad flat colour planes, seemed softer, more welcoming. She used striking pinks and purples.

Over the years I found out more about them. Queenie was born on a cattle station on the banks of the Ord River and, having a white father, was strikingly blond as a child and relatively light skinned. Her mother, a Gija woman, would black her face with charcoal and hide her in the bush whenever white officialdom came calling for fear she would be taken away. 

As a young woman she was employed as a cook on Texas Downs station when Rover came to work there as a stockman. Not long after they met she saved his life after a horse kicked him in the head. She stitched up his flapping scalp with camp cotton which she’d first sterilised. So competent was her surgery that when the doctor finally arrived he pronounced there was nothing more he needed to do. From then on Queenie and Rover were lifelong friends, though never sweethearts.

Rover first started painting after a female relative who had recently died came to him in a series of dreams and took him flying to various places which she told him to paint. His first paintings were on board for ceremonial purposes. Later, on canvas, he depicted sites of massacres as well as various interpretations of Cyclone Tracy which he believed to be a manifestation of the Rainbow Serpent. Rover, by example, started Queenie painting. “If he can do that so can I”, goes the story.

We are here, Bill and I, because, after carrying the idea and the title around for years, I eventually wrote a song called The Ballad Of Queenie And Rover, recorded it with the band last year and included it on our new album, Stolen Apples. We sent some copies of the album up to the art centre a couple of months ago and have been invited to visit. Warmun is only 670k from Derby where I need to meet the band tomorrow – a mere run to the shop in these parts.

Bill and I have landed in Kununurra this morning and rented a car. It’s a two hour drive to Turkey Creek/Warmun. We drive westish for a while towards Wyndham then turn south. Not long after that the country begins to look like paintings. I get that same jolt of recognition I had years ago driving from Hermannsburg to Alice Springs through Aranda country and thinking “Oh, Albert Namatjira wasn’t making this up! The colours in his pictures aren’t expressionistic, they’re photo-real!” Queenie and Rover and the Warmun painters seem more abstract on the surface than the Aranda watercolourists but the shapes and colours in their paintings correspond to the landscapes we’re travelling through – scattered reddish ranges, small clumps of rounded hills, pinkish earth, purple shadows. Of course, their paintings are all about country – their country. 

It is weird passing signs to places I’ve read about, known as titles to pictures and listed in song but have never been to – Lissadell, Bedford Downs, Bow River, Texas Downs. Places where mythical beings lived, travelled and died. It reminds me of my first trip to America where everything seemed deeply familiar though I was seeing it for the first time.


We arrive at Turkey Creek around 11, drive through the “suburbs” of Warmun – Top Camp, Bottom Camp, Middle Camp, Garden and cross the creek to Other Side where the art gallery is situated on a ridge. There we are met by Roger, Jackey, Anna and Ned who run the gallery. It is cheque day for the artists so people come and go and sit for a while before heading back home for the ritual payday afternoon card game.

Our visit unfolds informally, the conversation casual as we sit on plastic chairs under the large awning of the old shed. A light wind is blowing from the east. We meet major artists, senior law men and women, quiet people who’ve seen thousands of strangers like us breeze in and out within an hour or two. Some of the younger ones are more chatty. Rover’s daughter, Jane Yalunga, is there preparing some canvases. A couple of men on the CDEP (community development employment program) swing by to say hello and get an autograph before going back to work.

Sade Carrington, a young girlish grandmother who’s just back from heart treatment in a Perth hospital, discusses with us the relative merits of The Dockers and the Crows before requesting a photo in front of one of her paintings. There are strips of pink colour in the painting that remind me of Queenie’s strange pinks. When I ask her how she makes that colour she shows us the tubs of ochre that most of the painters use. Red, brown, yellow, orange and white ochre is all found locally. The pink that stops my heart comes from simply mixing red and white. (Doh! Of course.)

Roger takes us on a tour of the new art centre building which is to be opened in three weeks time. A large boab tree stands sentinel before it. It’s an airy, light filled structure of wood and corrugated iron, freshly carpeted, and the artists, he tells us, are keen to cover the large, pristine walls. He takes us, then, to the Turkey creek roadhouse where the petrol bowsers are all painted in distinctive Warmun designs. Inside the store, by the cash register, a Rover mural sleeps under perspex, partially obscured by postcard racks, knick knacks and Aboriginal tourist craft displays.

We circle back to the arts centre again where Patrick Mung Mung and his wife, Betty Carrington, Sade’s mother, have just arrived to say hello. They have taken a break from the rehab classes they have been running over the past couple of weeks. I am familiar with some of Betty’s work, in particular a stunning picture of the Bungle Bungles. In it, concentric lines, cones and cylinders coloured in delicate gradations create wonderful depth. The hills appear to be bound and floating at the same time. 

Bill is itching to buy a painting so we return to the storeroom where the paintings stacked deep against and on the walls make your head swim. The influence of Rover and Queenie and the other early Warmun painters is visible everywhere you look underneath the many and varied elaborations. Certain paintings seem to exude real power, others come across as merely formulaic while others that hardly caught you on first glance hold you longer with a second and third look. 

Bill points to a small to medium simple looking painting of vertical spearhead strokes and says “How much is that?” “18,000 dollars”, says Roger. The painting’s by Lena Nyadbi who doesn’t paint very much and whose work the international collectors are standing in line waiting for. Bill gulps and shifts his gaze elsewhere though his eyes keep flicking back.

It’s time now to say our goodbyes as we still have many miles to travel. We wheel around slowly in the dirt and head back over the creek again past the humble houses. A card game has started already on the ground under the shade of a tree and the fifty dollar notes, for sure, are flying across the blankets. 
We drive four hours to Fitzroy Crossing on a single lane bitumen highway, past the turn-off to Wave Hill where Vincent Lingiarri and a group of Gurindji stockmen walked off Lord Vestey’s cattle station 40 years ago to claim their ancestral land. Paintings dance in my head as the country outside the car seems to turn unpainted and unloaded (to me) again. But not unloaded for long. We’re heading towards Jandamarra country.



When I first visited Fitzroy Crossing 15 years ago I was shown around by a Bunuba woman, June Oscar, and a couple of older men no longer alive. I was interested in the story of Jandamarra, who fought a war of resistance against the white settlers and pastoralists of the late 19th century, and had written and recorded a song about him in 1989. Jandamarra, whose whitefella name was Pigeon, used to work as a tracker for the Derby police helping to capture his fellow Bunuba countrymen and was considered a model black, highly skilled and effective in his work. 

He worked mainly with a man named Richardson, a freelance police officer with whom he became good friends, until one night as they were bringing in several Bunuba prisoners on the chain in to Derby he had a road to Damascus conversion and decided to switch sides. In the middle of the night he murdered Richardson, unshackled his brothers and took to the ranges where he waged war against the invaders of his country. 

Between 1894 and 97 he was a thorn in the settlers’ side. His ability to evade capture even when apparently trapped – he had intimate knowledge of secret caves and tunnels in the limestone ranges – along with his apparently miraculous recovery from serious wounds and clever guerrilla tactics made his reputation grow to mythical, supernatural status. He was only brought down in the end by another tracker from further south. The police chopped off his head and carried it in triumph to Derby.

Back in 1992 June and the old men told me the Jandamarra story and took me to places where important things happened – Windjana Gorge, the site of a big battle where Jandamarra was wounded, and Tunnel creek where he lay low for months recovering and being nursed by his mother and his wife. These places are now on the official tourist trail.

The last couple of hours to Fitzroy Crossing are tough driving into the setting sun. It’s a long straight road most of the time. Bill’s at the wheel. Every now and then we slow down for crows feasting on road kill. One of them, gorged with roo, rises too slowly and hits our windscreen hard, chipping it, then amazingly flies lazily off. (We imagine him waking up in the morning, shrugging his feathers and saying “Geez, my left wing feels a bit sore today”). 

Around dusk a bullock looms suddenly out of nowhere in the middle of the road but our brakes are just up to it. We arrive weary and hungry and, after a feed at the Fitzroy lodge on the bank of the mighty, ever changing Fitzroy River, turn in.



June Oscar and several other aboriginal women from the town visit me at breakfast. They were at a meeting out bush last night and are on their way to another meeting next door in one of the lodge’s function rooms. It’s a busy time for them right now. The women of Fitzroy Crossing are fighting to impose a total ban on take away alcohol sales. Naturally there is a fair bit of resistance. Most of the population of the town and the area are black and there are many social problems here associated with heavy drinking. 

We chat for a while and their determination is obvious. June and these women are heroes to me. They carry appalling burdens with grace, pride and humour. “Sing that Little Things song for us in Derby. That’s our song”, says one of the older ones with a big smile as we farewell each other.

After an uneventful 3 hour drive across the plains Bill and I arrive at the King Sound Resort in Derby around 2 o’clock. The word “resort” is perhaps used a touch loosely around these parts. This is mudflat and mangrove country. There are no picturesque beaches, no gentle waves lapping at the hotel perimeter and no holidayers lounging around the pool with umbrellas in their drinks. Here the housemaids call you “Darls”. The rooms are fine, though, and the pool looks just big enough to get wet in. 

The rest of the band have just arrived along with Katy Steele from Little Birdy. She will be doing all the WA dates with us. We head down to the civic centre, a large open sided shed with a corrugated iron roof, where the crew are setting up. We have four of our own crew supplemented with four WA crew who travel with the PA rig and lights. In all we are a touring party of 16 and, spread among 4 vehicles – the truck and three Carnival Kias – will be driving all the way down the coast doing gigs along the way. Broome, Karratha, Carnarvon, Geraldton make up the first week.

Patrick Davies, an indigenous health worker and songwriter from Fitzroy Crossing, is also on the bill tonight so we have a lot to get through before showtime – soundchecks for three acts as well as running our whole set (close to two hours) in order to check the lights and projection cues. Our plan is to perform the new album Stolen Apples from first to last note and then swing into a mix of old songs for the second half – like Neil Young’s Greendale tour a few years back but without the stage sets and extras in costumes. However we have planned a theatrical dimension to the concert and, with that in mind, Shannon, the lighting director, and I have been selecting images over the past month – mainly paintings – to go with the songs. There is a screen behind the band for the pictures to play on.

We work steadily through the warm afternoon playing every song, some more than once, in order to get the visuals right. This is unusual territory for us. Generally our shows are more freewheeling. But this show has a much tighter structure. We use up all the time we have nailing little details down. Eventually around 6 we call it quits. The whole thing’s still feeling a little loose but that’s to be expected. Hopefully everything will tighten up as we head further down the road. 

After a feed and change of clothes at the hotel I head back to the civic centre around seven to see Patrick play. Steve Pigram is with him who, along with six of his brothers, sang on the recording of The Ballad Of Queenie and Rover nine months ago on a visit to Melbourne. The Pigram Brothers will be playing with us tomorrow night in Broome. They are musical royalty up this way.

Patrick has just started and is sounding strong. Steve’s earthy voice harmonises with him as his guitar and ukulele filigree around the tunes. There are a few of his countrymen there tonight and he goes over well. Katy plays solo next and sings a mix of Little Birdy songs, new ones and a brave cover of Do Right Woman first recorded by Aretha Franklin. Most singers don’t come off too well singing something that Aretha’s made famous but Katy pulls it off. The crowd are right into her. “This is going to work well”, I think to myself.

The band have gathered by now – Peter, Bill, Dan, Ash and Cameron. We’re all a bit toey but feeling alright because we know we’ve done the necessary, solid work in rehearsal over the previous fortnight. We warm up singing some of our big harmony songs then Ash takes the guitar and takes us through Tom Petty’s Free Falling which we sing at the top of our voices. Peter mixes up six Brother Pete’s – last tour’s favourite pre-show nip, 3 parts vodka, one part Lift or lemonade – for the quick ritual clink and knockback. 
And before we know it the lights have dimmed and we’re walking slowly on stage. Feelings Of Grief, the first song, is a slow building lament – a tough opening for band and audience. God Told Me To keeps things serious and intense but the band’s beginning to open its shoulders. By the third song Stolen Apples we’re starting to smile and the feeling in the crowd is good. People are dancing up the front. Others sit outside at long tables with a good view of the band. 

We get to our ninth song, The Ballad Of Queenie and Rover. Steve and Colin Pigram (who works as a mechanic in Derby) slide onstage to a mike and sing the parts they sang on the record. During the instrumental section I look around to the screen behind us where large images of Queenie and Rover’s paintings slowly dissolve into each other. The crowd is swaying. I’m thinking “Good, good, sweet…we have a show.” (Only 34 and a half more shows, 7 weeks and around 15,000k to go).

I look around again as the song comes to an end and a big photograph of Rover in a white cowboy hat materialises. He’s looking off to one side. “That way”, he could be saying, “You go that way”.